Small towns and close knit communities are under scrutiny again in Nikki Crutchley's second novel NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU. Not part of a series with NOTHING BAD HAPPENS HERE, this second outing is built around another interesting and complicated female character Zoe Haywood. Haywood has returned to her hometown Crawton to bury her estranged mother Lillian, who recently committed suicide. Despite the difficult circumstances of returning home to the suicide of a mother she really didn't get on with, living in her mother's house, back in the community she grew up in, Haywood finds herself drawn back into high-school friendships, and stumbling over details that make the likelihood that her mother did, indeed, suicide, less clear.
Crutchley builds an interesting story in a deliberate, slowly paced manner in NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU. Haywood has gone on from a difficult childhood of neglect and disinterest from her mother to forge a teaching career - one that's had plenty of ups and downs. Meanwhile her mother Lillian is a popular, respected counsellor of kids back at home. It seems that Lillian may also have been increasingly suffering from dementia, but not so bad yet that she's failed to notice a worrying pattern in the disappearance of some marginalised young women from the town. Unfortunately the clues she has left behind clearly indicate her struggles with memory and reasoning and the chances of Haywood and her high-school friends understanding what Lillian was trying to remind herself are difficult enough, without a series of very complicated relationship problems along the way.
The sense of small town, small community, hidden secrets, and odd goings on in picturesque places plays out well in this novel - as it did in Crutchley's debut. Here again we have somebody struggling with inner demons - Lillian seems to have had more than her fair share, and visited a lot of them on her daughter as a result. Haywood is remarkably together given her childhood, not without her own flaws and problems, regrets and mistakes, as is just about everybody in this novel. There's a sense that small town growing up can be very safe in some ways, and fraught and risky in many others. The contrast between seemingly happy families next door, and the complicated goings on in the home of Lillian and Zoe is nicely done, as is the lives of high-school friends who stayed in town, and those that tried to cut ties.
Crutchley does a particularly good job with complicated female characters. Haywood may not be the alcoholic mess that her main character in the first novel was, but she's got more than enough problems, doubts, insecurities, positives and negatives to be going on with. She's instantly sympathetic and engaging, without being straight-forward and always easy. The same could be said of Lillian who obviously wasn't a good mother, obviously had her good and bad points, and seems to have been a friend to young girls when they needed one.
The plot here is complex and intricate, although many readers may increasingly feel some confidence in the who and even the how of the ultimate solution. The why is less straight-forward and in many ways the more important question. NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU has moments of great insight and clarity into the nature of small towns, small communities, and the people who can slip under the radar in those situations.